Milk (2008): Van Sant’s Biopic of Harvey Milk, Starring Sean Penn in Oscar-Winning Performance

As Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politico elected into office, Sean Penn renders such a sympathetic and towering performance that he elevates Gus Van Sant’s enjoyable biopic way above its conventional structure and melodramatic trappings.
Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

As penned by Dustin Lance Black, “Milk” tries to present a well-rounded, multi-faceted portraiture of Milk as a gay rights activist, open-minded and expansive politician, devoted friend, flamboyant lover, loyal San Francisco resident, and iconic hero, resulting in a middle-of-the-road picture that’s overreaching in ambition, but somewhat falls short of completely fulfilling its many goals.

In other words, “Milk” is a very good, but not a great film. The narrative assumes the shape of a survey of gay life in San Francisco in the 1970s, punctuated by major events, indicated with title cards, just before another major tragedy: AIDS epidemic.

While many parts of the film are emotionally effective and exuberant in tone, overall, they don’t add to a truly satisfying, fully-fleshed portrait of the man, who has become a symbol of the gay movement, or the tumultuously vibrant socio-political times in which he lived. Taking a more balanced approach to a timely but still inflammatory subject, “Milk” doesn’t dig deep enough into the psychosexual dynamics of its protagonist.

The main structural device, of Milk tape- recording his thoughts and premonition of early death, interrupts the flow of the already episodic narrative. In at least half a dozen times, Milk commentary is so brief (one or two sentences) that it renders it unnecessary, adding another layer to the otherwise free-floating story.

At the end, you are left with a rather clear but not a particularly poignant profile of a seminal persona that was at once a product of his times, as well as a beacon that went beyond the rigid norms and limitations of his society, wishing to forge a new era defined by more humanistic and liberal agenda.

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).

In its current shape, “Milk” also runs the risk of being too mainstream for militant gay and avid indie audiences seeking edgier and more offbeat fare on the one hand, and perhaps too outr?© for middlebrow viewers who like well-made biopics about “noble” heroes with good beginning, middle, and happy ending.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Van Sant is his refusal to structure “Milk” as a simple formulaic tale of the rise and fall of an “outsider,” or “underdog,” par excellence, that of a proud, openly gay man

It’s premature to predict whether the film as a whole is a serious contender in the upcoming Oscar race, though there is no doubt that Sean Penn should receive yet another Best Actor Oscar nomination for a film that represents his best work since his 2003 Oscar-winning turn in Clint Eastwood¬ís “Mystic River.”

Even so, despite several shortcomings, “Milk” represents Gus Van Sant’s most accessible film in a decade, since the Oscar-winning “Good Will Hunting,” in 1997, which was simpler but more touching work. After making four or five small, experimental, more personal indies, such as “Gerry,” “Elephant,” “Last Days, and “Paranoid Park,” which didn’t go much beyond the global festival circuit, Van Sant has reestablished himself as a director who can make smoothly entertaining films with broader appeal about politically relevant themes.

Indeed, though grounded in a particular time and place, Milk’s platform of hope and heroic legacy continue to resonate in today’s politics; it’s too bad that the picture will bow in late November after the presidential elections. Like Oliver Stone’s “W,” “Milk” could have registered stronger impact had it been released prior to the party conventions and debates.

Van Sant’s “Milk” is not the first feature about the person or his era. In 1984, the talented Bob Epstein and Friedman made the Oscar-winning documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk,” which helped prepare the background for feature movies about AIDS, such as “Parting Glances,” “Longtime Companion,” and “Poison,” to mention a few seminal titles.

The docu chronicled the life, rise to political power and murder of Harvey Milk, one of the country’s first openly gay elected officials. Milk’s story paralleled the story of the modern gay rights movement, specifically the heady times of the 1970s in probably the most organized gay community in the world, San Francisco’s Castro district. As a mobilizing symbol, the gay community couldn’t ask for a more potent representative than Milk.

Displaying elements of both tragedy and nostalgia for a unique period in gay and lesbian history, Milk’s story was told chronologically. Unsuccessful in his first attempts at a City Supervisor seat, Milk eventually won after the city restructured his districting. His campaign and triumphant victory were related by a former campaign aide, who told of his kindness, generosity, and insistence on a diverse campaign staff. The footage of his victory showed Milk and his supporters react with both disbelief and unmitigated joy.

The tragedy that followed was foreshadowed as we learn of Dan White, the fellow San Francisco Supervisor who murdered Milk and Mayor George Moscone in 1978. Despite White’s confession and overwhelming evidence of intent, he was given a minor sentence of only seven years.

As a result, San Francisco’s gay community was catapulted into a state of grief and rage that led to a series of riots at City Hall. The scene of the candlelight march held for Milk after his murder was especially poignant. “The Times of Harvey Milk” was at once a piece of history and a tribute to an endearing figure in the gay rights movement.

Since the docu was made 24 years ago, there’s definitely a room for a new, preferably more critical and illuminating feature about this seminal figure. As I’m writing this essay, I realize that my high expectations may be responsible for a favorable, if not entirely enthusiastic, response to Van Sant’s new work; I truly wanted it to be better.

“Milk” covers the same turf as the 1984 docu, while adding some new characters and relationships. Chronologically speaking, in 1977, Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, thus becoming the first openly gay man to be voted into major public office in America. His victory was perceived not just a victory for gay rights, but also a victory for human rights, as he succeeded in forging new coalitions across the more acceptable political spectrum.

Van Sant and his writer, whose scenario is original, are good at showing how Milk recruited a diverse aggregate of people, from militant gays to senior citizens to union workers. He changed in the process the very nature of the political system and the very meaning of what’s a militant battle for human rights. As a result, Milk became a national hero well before his untimely death, in 1978.

Shrewdly, the filmmakers have decided to focus on the last eight years of Milk’s life, 1970 to 1978, without dwelling on his childhood and adolescence. At 40, we find restless Milk living in New York City. Looking for a different purpose and new lifestyle, Milk and his then lover Scott Smith (James Franco) relocate to San Francisco, where they establish a small business, Castro Camera, in the heart of a working-class neighborhood. Soon, and this is one of the film’s more interesting aspects, the place becomes a social (and cruising) center for gay people from all over the country.

We are led to believe that Milk was empowered by San Francisco in general (this was after all the sexual liberation, pre-AIDS era), and the Castro neighborhood in particular, a place that became sort of a Mecca for gay Americans and foreigners–and for tourists who wished to get a glimpse of what a gay region looks and feels like.

Surprising himself and Scott, Milk decides to “go politics,” designating himself as an outspoken agent for radical change. To that extent, he seeks equal rights and opportunities for all. His great love for the city and passion for its people bring him support from various, unlikely demographic groups, such as young and old, straight and gay, this at a time when prejudice and violence against gays were rampant–in spite of or because of the new sexual freedom that began in the late 1960s and increased in the 1970s. (Readers of a certain age may recall Anita Bryant’s vicious but silly homophobic campaigns).

With vitalizing support from Scott and some new friends and volunteers, Milk immerses himself in the “choppy” and “dirty” waters of city politics. Not neglecting the younger generation, he also mentors young street activists like Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch who starred in Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild”). The tale could have been more explicit in suggesting links between Milk’s sexual politics and private-sexual life.

Bolstering his likable public persona with humor, Milk’s actions begin to speak louder than his gift-of-gab words. Soon, he becomes a known figure in and outside his immediate milieu–sort of a minor celeb. (While visiting San Francisco, many people stopped at his camera shop as a touristic landmark).

However, there is a price to be paid for his passion and political commitment. Milk’s persistent determination to be a part of city government exerts damaging effects on his personal life, driving him apart from lover Scott.

In what’s truly an American success story, Milk fails not once but three times to get elected, twice for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and once for the California State Assembly. While making his fourth, successful run for public office, Milk takes a new, younger Mexican lover, Jack Lira (Diego Luna).

The latest campaign proves to be a triumph, and Milk is elected supervisor for the newly-zoned District 5. Milk serves San Francisco well while lobbying for a citywide ordinance protecting people from being fired because of their sexual orientation, and rallying support against a proposed statewide referendum to fire gay schoolteachers and their supporters.

He realizes that his fight against Proposition 6 represents a pivotal precipice for the gay rights movement. At the same time, the political agendas of Milk and those of another newly elected supervisor, Dan White (Josh Brolin), increasingly diverge and their personal destinies tragically converge.

To the filmmakers’ credit, Dan White is not vilified as a cartoon-type villain, and though he is not humanized either, Josh Brolin, continuing to impress as an actor with every assignment (most recently “W”), plays him as an eccentric politico with his own set of ideas and demons.

Some of the most illuminating scenes take place between Milk and White, and you’ll be surprised to learn how complex their bond is; Milk, for example, was the only one invited to the christening of White’s son. The film suggests that White’s Catholicism, not to mention excessive drinking, might have played a more critical role in his ultimately ferocious animosity than given credit to by historians.

Structurally, “Milk”‘s narrative borrows some elements from Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and other memoirs-based sagas. This is particularly the case in the first chapters, set in November 1978, when Milk tape-records a personal observation: “Everything I did in my life was with a clear eye on the gay movement.” That he becomes a target of assassination later in the month grants his observation a prophetic, and even tragic quality. It also raises the relevant question of consciousness: Was Milk aware of the potentially dangerous effects of his radical politics

While Penn gives a spectacular central performance, appearing in most of the yarn’s scenes, and defining the tone of the picture, the rest of the ensemble is also impressive.

Of the various lovers Milk had, the most interesting is the first, Scott Smith, likeably played by James Franco as a charming, easy-going fellow, whereas the weakest is Diego Luna as the Mexican lover, perhaps because his part is underwritten; it’s hard to see what bound the couple together other than sex (which is rarely shown).

Obviously, this kind of tale is largely male-driven. The only significant female is Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill), a hard-core lesbian, who helped orchestrate Milk’s fourth, successful campaign

As a period film, ¬ìMilk¬î benefits immensely from its on-location shoot in San Francisco, courtesy of the brilliantly diverse lenser Harry Savides, Van Sant¬ís reliable collaborator. Though the film’s tone is far from being nostalgic, the accurate evocation of the Castro district and the authentic look of other locations (and costumes) turn it into a significant movie, historically, politically, and artistically.


Harvey Milk – Sean Penn
Cleve Jones – Emile Hirsch
Dan White – Josh Brolin
Jack Lira – Diego Luna
Scott Smith – James Franco
Anne Kronenberg – Alison Pill
Mayor Moscone – Victor Garber
John Briggs РDenis O’Hare
Dick Pabich – Joseph Cross
Rick Stokes – Stephen Spinella
Danny Nicoletta – Lucas Grabeel
Jim Rivaldo – Brandon Boyce
David Goodstein – Zvi Howard Rosenman
Michael Wong – Kelvin Yu
Art Agnos – Jeff Koons


A Focus Features release, presented in association with Axon Films, of a Groundswell and Jinks/Cohen Company production.
Produced by Dan Jinks, Bruce Cohen.
Executive producers: Michael London, Dustin Lance Black, Bruna Papandrea, Barbara A. Hall, William Horberg.
Directed by Gus Van Sant.
Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black.
Camera: Harris Savides.
Editor: Elliot Graham.
Music: Danny Elfman.
Production designer: Bill Groom.
Art director: Charley Beal.
Set designer: Chad Owens.
Set decorator: Barbara Munch.
Costume designer: Danny Glicker.
Sound: Felix Bruce Andrew, Neil Riha.
Sound designer, supervising sound editor, Leslie Shatz; re-recording mixers, Shatz, Chris David, Van Sant.
Visual effects supervisors: Syd Dutton, Bill Taylor, Chel White.
Visual effects: Illusion Arts, Bent Image Lab.
Assistant director: David Webb.
Casting, Francine Maisler.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 126 Minutes.